If a “canon” existed for lesbian writers, the works of Elana Dykewomon would surely have a place there. In every novel that she has written, Dykewomon has captured the spirit of lesbian collectives and women organizing around common causes. In her latest novel Risk, Dykewomon has once again built a lesbian collective and captured the spirit of a tight-knit circle of friends within the lesbian community of Oakland, California. The greatest irony of this novel is that, even though the collective is built around helping lesbians in need, it could not help its own.
At least one third of problem gamblers are women. As lesbians are at higher risk for addiction disorders than heterosexual women, one would think that more research studies or fiction dealing with lesbians and compulsive gambling would exist. The lack of literature specific to female compulsive gamblers leads to gaps in common knowledge that lesbians would have about compulsive gamblers in their community. Because of this, the novel Risk by Elana Dykewomon may prove itself a valuable resource if the rationale for the main character’s gambling addiction is indeed plausible.
For those who pick up Risk looking for a dashing Vegas lesbian with the magic touch, look elsewhere. Carol, the overweight gambler anti-heroine of Dykewomon’s latest novel, is not glamorous, charismatic, or magical at all. In fact, she does not have much direction in life. At forty-something, she tutors high school students for a living and has a love-hate relationship with her body, her Jewish identity, and money. She lives with her partner J.D. in a tight-knit, racially and culturally diverse lesbian community in Oakland, where they are members of an old-school lesbian collective called LABIA (Lesbian Amazon Brigade in Action) which raises money and provides support for lesbians in need.
Carol develops a gambling habit after assisting her terminally ill mother Molly to commit suicide. An only child, Molly was Carol’s anchor in life after she lost her father in the Vietnam War. After losing her mother, but gaining a large inheritance which included an entire apartment building, Carol flies alone to a tribal casino in Albuquerque. It is there that Carol discovers her “talent”—an uncanny ability to make the right bet. After her first big win, Carol finds spiritual comfort in numbers and probability, and begins to take bigger risks with her money. Away from her partner Z.D. and other friends, it seems that Carol is the most grounded and assertive when she is gambling.
Carol’s close associates also engage in risk taking behavior. Her partner, J.D., sells marijuana and other illegal drugs. Their friend Nash looks for any opportunity to sleep with women. The only stability that they have is their camaraderie and love for each other, and it seems that the characters thrive on helping each other get through their troubles. Ironically, it is not Carol’s gambling habit that puts her relationship with J.D. at risk, but Carol’s one night stand with a croupier that makes J.D. want to break up. The lowest point of the J.D. and Carol’s relationship is when J.D. has gone completely “straight”—off selling drugs and a member of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce—while Carol is at the highest point of her gambling career. This is when “player” Nash decides to make a move on Carol. In fact, it is Nash who tells J.D. to lighten up in regard to Carol’s gambling habit, and to support her while she is winning. Carol does eventually stop gambling while she is ahead, but still remains unfocused in regard to the rest of her life. Right before she is supposed to return home from her last casino trip, Carol takes her last big risk, and dives into a partially filled swimming pool in the middle of the night.
It is hard not to have high expectations for Risk after reading Dykewomon’s previous novel Beyond the Pale. In Beyond the Pale, Dykewomon did a great deal of research to reconstruct the lives, minds, and cultures of Russian Jewish women in the Old Country and the United States. Although that story had taken place more than one hundred years ago, the characters read true and will live on in the memories of readers for hundreds of years to come for their courage and conviction. Not only does Dykewomon’s Oakland lesbian collective seem frozen in time, it is difficult to appreciate the characters of Risk as individuals. They are hard to love, although the reader will remember them for their flaws. While Dykewomon recounts the life stories of Carol, J.D., and Nash, the reader may struggle to find concrete reasons as to why Carol and Nash have the problems that they do. For example, if Carol was so uncomfortable with the size of her inheritance, why did she not donate it to LABIA so that other women in need could use the money?
Unlike other novels or memoirs about people with addictions, Risk does not set the stage for a morality play. Dykewomon allows the reader to come up with their own conclusions for the characters’ psychological and emotional challenges. Although this could be a daring move for an author, it will leave some readers—particularly those of The “L” Word generation—expecting more.